The Reasons To Avoid Slander

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We all do it: not just talk about other people, but talk about them in a derogatory way. Why? According to recent research, it may be because gossip “not only helps clarify and enforce the rules that keep people working well together, but it circulates crucial information about the behavior of others that cannot be published in an office manual.” Gossip also makes us feel connected to the people with whom we share it. Hearing (and speaking) about the failures of others also makes us feel better about ourselves. But gossiping about someone (that is, reporting an accurate version of their failings)—say, that a professor is having an affair with a student—is different from dismissing or even condemning that person’s humanity, which amounts, in my view, to slander.

Accurately reporting to others the unethical or immoral behavior of others may indeed be important. But if we aren’t careful to contain our judgment—to maintain a compassionate stance toward the person about whom we speak—we risk being slandered ourselves. Here are at least four reasons to tread carefully when criticizing someone to members of our group:

  1. It’s the nature of slander to be repeated. Never presume because you’ve sworn someone to secrecy that such a promise will be kept. It most likely won’t.
  2. Your criticism of someone may be valid, but mouthing it to someone other than the person whom you’re criticizing is never to help that person improve, and therefore has great power to harm. Wield that power responsibly. Harm dealt to another person’s reputation is a grievous harm indeed.
  3. Studies show that the criticism you level at others often becomes what others associate with you. If you criticize someone for being lazy, for example, the person to whom you say it will associate laziness with you.
  4. Slandering others—giving voice to your negative views about other people (as opposed to their actions)—prevents you from seeing them in a positive light. And that prevents you from feeling gratitude for them as well as from seeing them as full-fledged human beings with their own hopes, dreams, disappointments, and hurts. And as I wrote in an earlier post, this spirit of abstraction is not just the cause of conflict but of war.

Ultimately, when we denigrate others we denigrate ourselves. We may find it perversely attractive, not just to gossip but to slander. But to give in to the impulse to dismiss the humanity of others because of their crimes, large or small, is to argue that people can’t change or improve—in short, to argue that they can’t become their better selves. But if they can’t, then neither can we.

Next Week: Delivering Bad News, Redux

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  • Fabulous article!

    Gossip and slander is vicious in most organizations in my experience.

    I truly value your writing. To rise above trashing others to make yourself feel good is an outstanding character trait in my view.

  • Gossiping and being overly critical also prevents one from feeling comfortable enough with oneself to act spontaneously or creatively. It damages our own self-esteem and makes us more likely to feel bad about our own behavior. It’s a negativity boomerang that impedes our own growth much more than it hurts those who we criticize. Great post!

  • I grew up with people who loved to gossip, so much so that I didn’t think it was poor behavior until an outside person educated me about it. I am usually successful in avoiding it now, but if I catch wind of it, I don’t spread it. I find it repulsive.

  • Alex, great article.

    In Judaism gossip and improper speech are considered one of the worst sins.

  • Good post. In my anger and bitterness, I too have indulged in slandering people who have hurt me, knowing full well that it belittles only me in the end. Nowadays, like Abraham Lincoln said in the past, my attitude is: “I do not like that person and so, I must get to know him better.”

  • Hi Alex,

    Great post. I also follow the practice and find it unbearable to sometimes tolerate gossip. But being a girl and having grown up in an environment full of gossip and judgement, I slip in & out all the time. I feel terrible about it each time but yet find it difficult to control my mouth. Also sometimes I wonder if it makes my brain sharper and analytical and helps me judge people.
    Any suggestions?

    Regards …

    Shk: Sometimes gossiping is nothing more than a bad habit. Bad habits can be stopped by vigorous self-monitoring and replacement with alternative routines. I discuss this in detail in my book.


  • Reason # 5: In all US States (I believe), defamation (a false slanderous—or libelous—statement is a ground for a civil suit and about 20% of the States have criminal defamation laws. Although truth is generally an absolute defense, truth doesn’t matter (legally) in those cases where the statement is considered to be defamatory per se.

  • With news media, entertainment and cyber culture that all seem to thrive on slander and derision, it is wonderful to hear a voice for a more generous, humanity-seeking ethic. I wish they could all take your message to heart, but of course, I can only work on myself.

  • Lashon hara (slandering/gossip) causes sinat chinam (baseless hatred), which was the cause of the second temple in Jerusalem being destroyed. An important lesson for us to all take to heart. The rabbinical sage Chofetz Chayim wrote a famous book called Guard Your Tongue, which provides valuable teachings on this important matter.

  • I was really hurt by a friend, whom I’ve now talked about—or I guess gossiped about/slandered—to several people. It’s kind of necessary to talk about it though. I’m sure I’ve gone overboard at times, but you need to make sense of your feelings, and where do you draw the line? I will talk to her about it—the opportunity has just been a long time coming—and hopefully that will help me forgive. I definitely take the point that it does more harm to yourself. “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” ~ Nelson Mandela

  • I appreciate the core message of this post, Alex—what I take to be the core message, anyway—but it disturbs me a bit that you gloss over the implications of one of the aspects of gossip/slander you mention at the start of your essay, that gossip works to “enforce the rules that keep people working well together.”

    Mostly, in my view, gossip works to preserve toxic situations. Gossip operates within interpretive communities that seek to preserve the status quo (whether they are social groups or co-workers or professional groups). It tends to reinforce power relations as they already exist. People “work well together” to the extent they are made to accept their place in a hierarchy which may or may not be healthy, moral, or just. Gossip is ubiquitous because it works both as a pressure-relief valve for those at the bottom of the hierarchy AND as a tool for those at the top to hold opposing viewpoints in check. The very fact that, as one of the commenters mentioned, a true but defamatory statement can be called slanderous if it injures the reputation of the person at whom it is directed, demonstrates that gossip and slander are tools of social control. Truth, when spoken by someone who embraces a different system of making sense of things, is regarded as slanderous.

    Thus, while it is always wise to separate criticism of the actions of others from blanket condemnation of their humanity, the problem of social control remains. If someone’s actions are not wrong but are rejected or viewed as wrong by the group (e.g., dating someone of another race, not following group norms that reinforce unfairness), the person gossiped about has little recourse. Would it be wrong, do you suppose, to observe (out loud and to others) about a person or persons attempting to exert social control that they seem to have one set of rules for themselves and another set for folks who disagree with them? Is that gossip or following a code of ethics that requires you to speak truth to power?